Calif. Fire Dept., Sheriff Feud Over Helicopter Use


A long simmering feud between the Kern County Sheriff's Department and Fire Department over helicopter hoist rescues was addressed by the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday morning. In October, the board asked the County Administrative Office to look into how the departments work together and whether a Memorandum of Understanding needs to be modified.

After a review CAO John Nilon, Fire Chief Nick Dunn and Sheriff Donny Youngblood agreed to keep the current MOU that governs their air resources, particularly on hoist rescues, the same. That agreement allows the sheriff to be the lead agency and be on five days a week. The fire department is the secondary agency working two days a week.

The Kern County Sheriff's Department began doing hoist rescues when it got Air 5 back in 2009. Hoists were a job done by county fire for the decade prior, but the MOU signed by Youngblood and now retired Fire Chief Dennis Thompson put the sheriff's department as the lead on hoist rescues. And there has been a simmering feud over the MOU and how the two departments operate since then. The feud escalated to a CAO review in part because of videos of a sheriff's hoist rescue posted on YouTube with anonymous comments questioning safety and accompanied by less than flattering music.

"In that particular case there is nothing wrong with that," said Youngblood on Tuesday. "Somebody wanted to make something wrong with that, hence the music that was added to it, and we took offense to that. I took great offense to that."

Dunn made it clear that while the feud evolved at levels below his and the sheriff's, the fire department had nothing to do with the video and were told about it by an agency outside of the county.

"We sent the video to the sheriff to make them understand we weren't responsible for anything like that," Dunn said.

Despite the grumbling over the MOU and who is more qualified to do certain air operations, Youngblood, Dunn and Nilon are all in favor of keeping the current MOU, at least until a more exhaustive review can be conducted in the coming months. And all three re-iterated that the air operations of both departments are safe and the staffs well-trained. That is something the sheriff has had to defend because of the video.

"My staff and my deputies on that helicopter did not ask for this fight and they are the most professional group that I have ever worked with and all we were doing was defending ourselves," Youngblood said.

Dunn described the issue between the departments as being akin to a rivalry, one he and the sheriff are working to resolve.

"To make it work, what do you have to do? You have to train together and that's what we're going to do," Dunn said. "They'll speak the same language. They'll work together and support each other and that's how you get past these kinds of issues.

And while the board wants a more in-depth look at both department's air operations, an end to the feud is welcome news.

"There is too much for everybody to do to without fighting over who's going to do it," Supervisor Ray Watson said during Tuesday's meeting. "And I hope that part is history."

The MOU between the two agencies will be reviewed on a yearly basis and in the next few months the CAO's office will report back to the board about the possibility of a unified air command, making the two air programs more efficient and other issues.

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